Documentary Shows Need for College Top Brass to Take Sexual Assault, Public Safety Seriously

Published: February 19, 2015

Last week I viewed a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” which is a documentary on sexual assaults at U.S. institutions of higher education scheduled for release in late February.

The film is an exposé that features interviews of campus rape survivors and their families. The victims who reported what happened to them to campus officials experienced disbelief, apathy, victim-blaming, harassment and retaliation by classmates and the administrators responsible for institutional Title IX and Clery compliance. The filmmakers claim that many U.S. colleges and universities downplay and deny sexual assaults on campuses so that crime statistics will be low and public approval will be high.

As a journalist who has been covering sexual assault both on college and K-12 campuses for quite some time now, I was impressed with the film. Its claims and research seem to echo what those of us involved in campus public safety and victim advocacy have known for years: that the urge to sweep sexual violence under the rug is extremely strong.

There were some things, however, that I wish the film had covered. Primarily, I would have liked them to discuss just how difficult it is to investigate claims of sexual violence. I would have also liked for more administrators to have been featured so we could get their side of the story. It should be noted, however, that the film makers claim most of the administrators from the colleges implicated in the film were not willing to go on the record regarding the topic of campus sexual assault.

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RELATED: How to Investigate Campus Sexual Assaults

These concerns aside, “The Hunting Ground’s” criticism of college administrators seems to bolster, albeit in an indirect way, what those of you involved in campus public safety frequently say off the record: that many top-level administrators seem to ignore, or at the very least discount, your pleas for greater support for things like Clery and Title IX compliance, as well as for campus public safety in general.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been progress. There has. Campus police and security professionals have done a much better job recently of garnering administrator and C-suite support. To a great extent, these efforts have been helped by the U.S. Department of Education’s expanded investigations of higher ed’s handling of sexual assault claims. That being said, “The Hunting Ground” is a clear indication that campus public safety professionals are still often perceived as whiney problem children.

So how can campuses address this challenge? First and foremost, the chief/director/vice president of public safety must report to an administrator very high up on the campus food chain and have the necessary respect and authority to implement change. With this position, public safety can hopefully convey the critical importance of Title IX and Clery compliance, which would lead to the increased respect for victims of all crime, including those of sexual assault.

RELATED: Dept. of Ed Releases Finalized Rules for College Compliance with the Violence Against Women Act

Public safety and security practitioners must also be involved in more high-level planning meetings, community meetings, construction design meetings and other meetings involving local agencies, HR, IT, faculty, residence life and more.

Of course, with public safety’s access to someone like the university president, it might be tempting to just accept the status quo, which, until recently, has been to deny or downplay the fact that there is a sexual assault, and Clery and Title IX compliance problem on campus.

As the public safety chief/director/vice president, however, you must maintain your independence and moral compass. As the representative for public safety and security, you are the one who most likely will have to ask the uncomfortable “what if” questions. Campus top brass must be willing and able to address and even embrace the discomfort and awkward moments that you might cause. Not doing so could pose huge problems for an institution down the road, especially now that the general public will have a better understanding of the issue and their rights under Title IX.

With the release of “The Hunting Ground” in late February, prospective students and their parents will now understand that a low number of reported sexual assaults is a sign of an unsafe campus. More of them will also know that they can report their concerns to the Department of Education, setting in motion a whole chain of events that could damage your institution, not to mention tell the rest of the world that you let a victim down during her greatest time of need.

Will your college or university be ready to address these concerns now that there is so much more awareness?

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